Article Comment 

Experts: Leaders’ move in change of venue petition ‘creative,’ but not unethical

 

Jason Browne

 

Local lawmakers, Caledonia''s mayor and a local school board member have been under scrutiny for signing affidavits in support of moving Brian Holliman''s murder trial out of Lowndes County. 

 

Holliman is accused of shooting his wife, Laura Holliman, to death in the couple''s Caledonia home Oct. 25, 2008. 

 

And while the move may be unique, experts say it''s not unethical. 

 

"That''s the first I''ve heard of that," Jonathan Winburn, an associate professor in political science at the University of Mississippi, said of politicians lending their signatures to a motion for change of venue. "I can''t say if it''s common or not. I''ve never really heard of it." 

 

At face value, it''s not unethical, he added, but it is a unique case. 

 

"The lawyers need to do what''s best for their clients, particularly when the client''s life and liberty are on the line," said Ben Cooper, assistant professor of law at the University of Mississippi and a legal ethics expert. "If (the lawyers) think approaching these individuals to get their help is going to aid in convincing a judge to move the trial, it''s something that they should do and seems like an arguably creative approach to doing it." 

 

As long as no laws are being broken, Cooper says it''s the defense''s job to pursue every possible advantage. 

 

District 39 Rep. Jeff Smith, D-Columbus, said he wasn''t surprised by the request he sign the affidavit due to his position in the state House of Representatives and his law practice in Caledonia. He also serves as attorney to the town''s Board of Aldermen. 

 

"I just see and hear a lot of people talking about the case. I feel like there are strong feelings in the area, that people have made their minds up," said Smith. "I felt (Holliman) would have a fairer trial in another county with another jury." 

 

But, Smith said, the "strong feelings" go both ways. 

 

Many in the Caledonia area already have concluded Holliman is guilty, but others believe in his innocence, Smith noted. 

 

"People are talking both ways. It may not be 50/50," said Smith. 

 

Smith was approached by Holliman''s defense team in August and asked to sign an affidavit supporting a change of venue. 

 

He chose to sign, as did Caledonia Mayor George Gerhart, District 17 Sen. Terry Brown, R-Columbus, and former legislator Bruce Hanson, who also serves as a Columbus Municipal School District board member. 

 

Gerhart has said the change of venue is necessary for justice to be served. He also admitted to being friends of the Holliman family. 

 

Brown agreed; since both families are in the area, the trial should be moved, he has said. 

 

Hanson declined to comment on the matter. 

 

Winburn said Gerhart''s relationship to the family blurs the issue of ethics. 

 

"It doesn''t jump out as being necessarily a conflict of interest or something they shouldn''t have done, but I tend to think elected officials should stay out of it," said Winburn. "You don''t often think of politicians getting directly involved in a trial." 

 

Given the media attention devoted to Holliman''s case, his attorneys would have been negligent not to request a change of venue, said local attorney and public defender Donna Smith. 

 

"Typically, in a capital murder case there''s so much publicity that it taints the jury pool in the county. I would have been extremely surprised had Steven Farese (Holliman''s attorney) not filed that motion," she said. 

 

Based on her courtroom experience, Smith estimates an 85- to 90-percent chance the motion to move the trial is granted. 

 

"With this case, I''d be surprised if the venue isn''t changed. It''s such a hot issue in this county. Not only the criminal case, but the civil case for change of custody (of the Hollimans'' children)," said Smith. 

 

Custody of the couple''s 4-year-old daughter was given to her maternal grandfather, Doyle Godfrey, according to Lowndes County Chancery Court documents. Laura and Brian also each had a child from previous relationships, a 6-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son; custody arrangements for these children were not sought in Chancery Court and, therefore, are not documented at the Lowndes County Courthouse. 

 

"The lawyers need to do what''s best for their clients, particularly when the client''s life and liberty are on the line," said Ben Cooper, assistant professor of law at the University of Mississippi, a legal ethics expert. 

 

"If (the lawyers) think approaching these individuals to get their help is going to aid in convincing a judge to move the trial, it''s something that they should do and seems like an arguably creative approach to doing it," he added, noting it is the defense''s job to pursue every possible advantage. 

 

Circuit Court Judge Lee Howard will decide on the motion to change venues, Oct. 20. 

 

District Attorney Forrest Allgood has said he will prosecute the case, even if it falls outside of the 16th District.

 

 

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Reader Comments

Article Comment Vicki commented at 10/13/2009 3:47:00 PM:

How many more times will the Holliman's prove to this community that they get what they want??? Brian and his family is a disgrace to this community! I can understand taking up for ur child or family member but stooping to the levels of dragging in Politics!! Shame on ALL of YOU!!! The only lesson i have learned out of this so far is that in Lowndes County it's all about who you know and money talks!! Anyone else that would have KILLED their wife with the kids there would have never left the jail and would already have had a trial and sittin in the State Pen!!It's been almost a year and they are still talking about moving the date!! This time it's a change of venue... what were the last excuses for all the other times? And what will the excuse be next time?

 

Article Comment fred commented at 10/14/2009 8:33:00 AM:

There is only one thing you can do with trash (politicians) and that is take them to the curb to be removed.

So they didn't violate a specific sentence in an ethic clause somewhere. Big deal. If there wasn't something funny going on here then why haven't they come out from under their rock for other murder cases?

This smacks of cronyism and good ole boy-ism, and frankly, I hope it destroys them.

Laura didn't deserve this, and she certainly doesn't deserve some two-bit politician trying to stick his nose in it.

May all of their careers come to an end for this stunt.

 

Article Comment Bridgett commented at 10/14/2009 10:13:00 AM:

I agree Vicki, and that has upset me since day one. In most circumstances that you see where someone has admitted to killing another person they are locked up and not released. They attend the trial in chains escorted to the courtroom from the jail. This whole case from day one has been so unfair. You know he done this to her out of pure rage. The fact that he had had prior instances with other women should of kept him behind bars. I think not only Brian should be on trial, but his parents whom tried to help him cover the murder up, isnt there a charge called accessory. I just get so digusted with this whole matter. There was a life lost here, and her name was LAURA LEE.. And I agree this has been continuly postponed.. There is enough evidence against him, it doesnt matter if hes here or there!!!

 

Article Comment my2cents commented at 10/14/2009 1:18:00 PM:

How can anyone say it isn't unethical for public servants (who are elected by all the people) to lend their support to a select person when everyone knows they wouldn't do the same for all the people.
A person is elected to serve the people of their district, whatever that happens to be. When they differentiate between the people they serve, that then becomes 'unethical'.

 

Article Comment LA Jones commented at 10/14/2009 7:12:00 PM:

What scares me is that if it had not been for Laura Lees family and friends Brian would have got away with this. What does that say for our law enforcement? If it was your daughter, your mother or your wife would you want someone to get away with murder because of who they know?

 

Article Comment LA Jones commented at 10/14/2009 7:13:00 PM:

What scares me is that if it had not been for Laura Lees family and friends Brian would have got away with this. What does that say for our law enforcement? If it was your daughter, your mother or your wife would you want someone to get away with murder because of who they know?

 

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